Trains, and boats, and bikes

From Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi for a five-hour “layover” before we caught our train to Hoi An, which lies along the South Central Coast. With all our gear stowed away in our backpacks, we planned a leisurely evening of web surfing at one of the many Internet cafe’s scattered around Old Town. Life is not so easily planned, however.

We quickly found out, thanks in part to a friend we’d just met on the boat, that flooding was occurring in Central Vietnam and the trains could no longer get through. The monsoon season had been especially horrendous, and though the flooding of Bangkok made the headlines, nearly everyone in SE Asia was dealing with high water levels.

So rather than kicking back in front of a computer screen, we spent most of the evening running back and forth from the travel agency and the train station, only to find out… that the trains were indeed running to Hoi An.

But I have to say, although attempting to make last minute transportation changes when you don’t speak a word of Vietnamese is a huge hassle (probably the largest hassle we ran into on the trip), I am so thankful that we still had the opportunity to travel by train. My ears weren’t up to a flight, and the train was a great way to see the countryside.

Hopping the train

Haggard and dead tired, we boarded our train close to midnight. We booked a sleeper car, so Grace and I grabbed a bunk and fell straight to sleep. Though I awoke with every stop we made that night, it was actually a very peaceful way to sleep. The jostling of the cars and the squeak of the wheels were very meditative, and we woke to lush, tropical landscapes. Emerald green mountains rising out of the jungle, sea cliffs being carved by waves, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em villages.

Sleeper car

Much of which was under water. The trains still ran, but we’d often slow to a crawl in order to get through the hard hit areas. And water had risen just below the tracks during much of our journey.

But the longer journey was great to chill out and read, as well as take in the environment. Grace and I shared our sleeper car with Vu, a “grandfather” who seemingly knew everyone on the train. Several mothers brought their children to him to watch throughout the morning so they could have a moment to themselves, and he cajoled a young college student to come and talk with us.

Houng was at university studying to become a primary teacher and learning English. Vu threw her to the wolves, and had her talk with Grace and I about life. We ended up teaching each other songs. We taught her “On Top of Spaghetti” so she could teach her young pupils silly American campfire songs. She taught us a traditional Vietnamese song, that I can’t for the life of me remember. But the experience was enjoyable, and I know Grace left a huge impression on Houng.

Houng and Grace

So roughly 14 hours later, we departed our train in Da Nang, only a 30-minute taxi ride from Hoi An, our desired destination. We shared a cab with Tracy and Al, a couple from the train that we got to spend some time with in Hoi An (and who have talked us into making a future New Zealand trip), and chose a nice little hotel downtown with a balcony over looking the street (and, most importantly, had air conditioning!)

Apparently, we brought the sun. Visitors we first met in the hotel lobby complained of the deluge the city had received, with ankle-deep water running down the streets, but except for our first walk down to the river that was met with flooded streets, we had clear skies.

Hoi An is quite the tour attraction. There are many cultural highlights, amazing food (some of the best we had along our journey), traditional markets along the waterfront, and hundreds of stores – offering souvenirs, art, handcraft, and clothes.

Over 500 tailors set up shop in Hoi An to make you any type of clothing you want. We came up with our bags full of goodies, including some art that hangs above our mantel – and each glimpse of it brings memories of the trip crashing back.

But the historic sites of ancient Hoi An were sensory overload, and we kept going back for more. We visited assembly halls, old homes, museums, and communal houses that were packed with sights. Mosaic statues guarding the court yards, prayer coils sending blessings to the heavens, altars packed with gifts, and mural after mural after mural of symbols and history accompanying every wall around every corner. I couldn’t snap enough photos.

Just the cobblestone streets of Hoi An, with vibrant architecture and narrow alleyways jetting off in all different directions, was a wonder to behold.

And as if the sights weren’t enough, Grace and I took a cooking class to learn how to make the amazing Vietnamese foods we’d been eating. Led by the amazing Nga, head cook at Voulez Vous, we learned the art of making pho, green papaya salad, and fish wrapped in banana leaf. It was quite the treat.

And if all that weren’t enough, the highlight of Hoi An was a bike tour that took us off the beaten path. Grace and I rented bikes for a couple of hours ($1/day) and we went the opposite direction of the tailor shops and restaurants, into the heart of where people from Hoi An lived. The more narrow the street, the more likely we were to go down it, and it was a smile with each mile as we got “lost” in the different neighborhoods.

It was a treat, and it made for happy travelers.

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